Ideas

Why Staying on the Trail Is Bad for Nature

A woman and her young children hike through a grassy field in Pleasant Valley Preserve near the Eightmile River in Lyme, Connecticut. Photo © Jerry Monkman

Stay on the trail. Look, don’t touch. Take only photographs, leave only footprints.

These and similar rules have become a standard component of a refined environmental ethic; any reasonable outdoor education class is going to emphasize them.

I have a confession to make: As a kid I violated every one of those rules, frequently and without guilt. It made me a conservationist.

I roamed freely through the woods and fields. I caught lightning bugs. I turned over rocks to find crayfish. I trapped tadpoles in cups. I followed animal tracks. I built forts and dammed creeks. I dug holes. I chased things.

None of this lessened my respect for the natural world. Quite the opposite. Instead, I wanted to spend every minute I could out there. It started a lasting love for wild things and wild places that has never abated. I suspect I’m not alone in this.

In contrast, a lot of today’s outdoor education focuses on facts, often presented in the context of the earth’s doom and gloom future. An underlining message of this is that nature is separate from humanity and oh-so fragile, something we must never mess with. While the information may be alarming, it’s hardly the way to instill love. It instead makes nature boring, even dreary.

You probably have heard the complaints that kids are not playing outside, are not interested in the natural world. There’s even a term for this, coined by Richard Louv: Nature Deficit Disorder. And yet we insist on putting barriers up so that kids will not want to play in nature. I believe that free and wild play in nature is one of the missing ingredients in building a viable, effective conservation movement.

A young boy gathers cones near Mineral King Ranger Station in Sequoia National Park in California to celebrate the National Park Service’s Centennial. Photo © Nick Hall

I’m not alone. Paleontologist and science communicator Scott D. Sampson spends a lot of time on this in his excellent book How To Raise A Wild Child. He notes:

“Fearing that we must protect nature and kids at all costs, we often do more harm than good. Nature connection depends on firsthand, multisensory encounters. It’s a messy, dirty business – picking leaves and flowers, turning over rocks, holding wriggling worms, splashing in ponds. Lacking such experiences, children’s growth is impoverished and they’re unlikely to care for, let alone protect, natural places.”

Conservation writer Emma Marris says that many of these well-intentioned rules endanger “the simple, unsupervised messing about in the woods that so many older adults remember fondly.”

In an article for Slate magazine, Marris writes of a boy who gets in trouble for taking gravel from a state park. Another ranger sees this and realizes, “More than feeling empowered or excited to protect the natural world, now he is going to associate going to state parks with getting into trouble.”

Children search for aquatic life in the river at Davis Bend Nature Preserve in Hart County, Kentucky. Photo © Mike Wilkinson

I can already hear the protestations: One kid catching frogs may not hurt anything, but what if every kid did it? Can’t you see the damage caused by unauthorized trails ripping through the wilderness? Doesn’t the natural world have enough to deal with without a bunch of people trampling it?

Such questions raise valid points, of course. Certainly no one advocating a more hands-on approach to nature believes that every national park should be a “free for all” where kids and adults do whatever they want. Conservationists like Sampson and Marris never suggest kids pick endangered wildflowers or rip up sensitive habitats.

As kids, my brother and I caught and kept pet turtles. I would not do that with my son. With many turtle species in decline, keeping them as pets cannot be justified. In an increasingly crowded world, the reality is that there has to be regulations to protect wild things and wild places.

At one point in Yellowstone and other national parks, feeding bears was a favorite way to “connect” with nature. Today, we recognize that this activity is just plain stupid. It results in dead bears and dead humans. I’m not suggesting that everything we did in nature in the “old days” is justifiable today. Far from it.

John Helzer looks at a plains garter snake found on a gravel road on a warm spring day. Photo © Chris Helzer/TNC

But what I see is this: For many environmentalists, the “look but don’t touch” philosophy has become a rule for its own sake. It doesn’t matter if a habitat is full of rare species or a weed-infested hillside, kids should not bother nature. Ever. And this indeed does more harm than good.

There is a 1970s science fiction novel by John Crowley called Beasts. Despite some outdated notions on genetic engineering, it should be required reading for all conservationists. In it, humans have just suffered a massive calamity. The remaining people decide that they’ve wreaked enough havoc on earth, and use their technological prowess to construct a giant, self-sustaining tower.

All humans live in this tower and never leave, for any reason. They leave the rest of the planet to nature. This way, people can no longer muck things up.

When I first read this book, I considered this a version of dystopian hell. I have slowly realized that, for many environmentalists, the vision in this book is aspirational. A prevailing philosophy is that we need to leave nature alone.

Young girl by the Ohio River at Louisville Waterfront Park in Louisville, Kentucky. Photo © Devan King/The Nature Conservancy

I see that even in comments to this blog, nearly every time I write about interacting with nature. If I write about fishing, I get notes stating it’s cruel. If I write about hunting shed antlers, I’m depriving rodents of their nutrients. Even a story featuring tips for spotting wolves and  bears in Yellowstone generated this comment: “Protect these animals, respect and leave them alone! Just read about them and watch the videos!”

The author’s son tree climbing. Photo © Matt Miller

For me, and many others, it’s not enough to watch a nature documentary. And never will be enough. It also denies our human evolutionary history: for much of it, we were inextricably part of, not separate from, the natural world. We still are. Building a tower does not change the fact that we are  part of this world, dependent on land, water, air and creatures for our survival.

Sampson argues in How To Raise A Wild Child that unstructured play in nature is essential for children. They need it for their physical and mental health, and their development. And the planet needs it, too. Roaming off the trail, flipping over rocks, causes kids to fall in love with nature. And that love makes conservationists.

The good news is that we can allow this unstructured, hands-on play without endangering species or trampling sensitive habitats.

There are still lots of natural places where kids can and should roam at will. Sampson advocates for wild playgrounds, with trees and brush rather than manicured lawns, and where kids are free to explore. There are many vacant lots, woodlots and parks that could easily allow free play. Conservation organizations could acquire lands specifically for kids, properties slated for development that instead could be open to the much lesser impacts of rock collecting and miniature dam building.

A group of local kids visit the world’s largest known Western larch tree just outside of The Nature Conservancy’s Great Western Checkerboards Project, Montana. Seeley Lake, Montana. Photo © Steven Gnam for The Nature Conservancy

And, as Emma Marris writes: “There are 640 million acres of public land in the United States. Surely there’s room somewhere for a few lousy forts.”

And, in case you haven’t been paying attention, those public land acres are under imminent threat from people who want to sell them. We surely need more kids (and adults) playing on them, and connecting to them, not fewer. If no one goes there, then no one will even notice when these lands come on the auction block. That would be a far greater loss than anything wrought by a group of kids flipping rocks in a stream.

Hiking. Photo © Matt Miller

My wife and I are taking this hands-on approach to nature with our own toddler son. As Sampson suggests, our toddler keeps a “nature box” filled with items collected on our outings: sticks and stones and pine cones and bits of lichen. He catches and releases praying mantises and moths. He builds little castles along the river.

A recent weekend national forest snowshoeing adventure quickly got derailed. All that unpacked snow off the trail was just too inviting. We built a snowman, gathering fallen pine limbs and cones to make arms and buttons. As we played, my son suddenly pointed at a tree, “Tiny squirrel!” he exclaimed.

Indeed, a pine squirrel scampered down the trunk and into the snow. As my son giggled, I could see the beginnings of a lifelong fascination, a fascination that leads to love. That love does not come from a video or from environmental education. It comes from being out there as a participating member of this beautiful, awesome, still wild world.

Adrian Austin swinging from vines in the Nags Head Woods Preserve. Photo © Ben Herndon for The Nature Conservancy
Matthew L. Miller

Matthew L. Miller is director of science communications for The Nature Conservancy and editor of the Cool Green Science blog. A lifelong naturalist and outdoor enthusiast, he has covered stories on science and nature around the globe. Matt has worked for the Conservancy for the past 14 years, previously serving as director of communications for the Idaho program. More from Matthew L.

Follow Matthew L.

Join the Discussion

Leave a Reply to John Dorrer Cancel reply

Please note that all comments are moderated and may take some time to appear.

34 comments

  1. A fantastic article, for all of us who “follow the rules” as you describe, “Don’t leave what you bring in, leave what you take, stay on the trails, etc…”

  2. Years ago, when speaking with the director of a small nature center in New York state, I was shocked to hear her suggest that during the family nature walks I would be leading we should really try not to touch anything “…if we had to touch anything, pick up so much as a feather, we should make sure to put it back exactly in the same spot we found it.” Though I completed the programs I had agreed to, I crossed that nature center off any potential future employment list. Messing about in nature is how naturalists and scientists are grown. All you have to do is read the biographies or autobiographies of E. O. Wilson, David M. Carroll, Robert Michael Pyle, Bernd Heinrich, Beatrix Potter (mycology), etc. to see the direct link between the freedom they enjoyed in nature as children and their curiosity and scientific discoveries as adults.

  3. Thank you for this article. In our work we like to head off of the main pathways. Off to the areas of real interest where kids can truly indulge their need to explore and imagine and where, as an adult, you can see the connections being made that create not only an interest but a love for the natural world. You cannot replicate that depth of feeling and stimulation in a classroom or by only watching animals on a screen.

  4. Well said, Matt!

    As an avid scuba diver I’m trying to fit your philosophy into behavior in the wet side of the world. I’ve seen how many interactions in the oceans can leave pretty gruesome marks.
    Good judgement is the key of course. We have a tendency at times to love something to death.

  5. Excellent article. Love it. I was raised this way, and so were my children. While they don’t have children of their own yet, I have encouraged them along the way to keep up the tradition and to encourage their own children someday to do the same.

  6. I’m Gramma… one of the best compliments I have received is… “no, Gramma.. I don’t to go buy my bow and arrows.. I like making them with you!” They love coming over so they can play outside.. get their hands muddy.. and make lots of stuff… they can all swim, snorkle, and paddle board… an Oregonian.

  7. Play and learning go together. Appreciation for beauty and wonder at the complexities of nature are learned in many ways but most joyfully by immersion.
    Playing tag among alpine wildflowers would lead to destruction so I didn’t take my kids there until they could be amazed at the sight. Then playing tag didn’t come up as an option.
    Common sense rules are needed. But for childhood’s sake we need places where kids can make their own rules and just have fun.

    Thank You Matt, and keep fishing!

  8. It all dependes on how many of us are going to do that. It`s called overpopulation.

    1. Rodrigo has hit the nail on the head. Chances are, when you all were playing in nature as a kid, there was plenty more nature to play in. There was more undeveloped land, there were higher species populations. The reason land managers may treat nature as more precious is not because they are spoilsport prigs, but because they are probably way more aware than you of species population declines. You want kids to be feel free in nature? Then have fewer kids, teach them to respect other living things and become an active advocate for land preservation.

  9. I was always the “don’t stray from the path” type of girl growing up but now it is a whole different story and I find myself lost in nature all the time! Love your articles Matthew.

  10. Great article! I was an outdoor educator for years and this article is right on. I wish there was more funding (or any funding) for environmental education, especially for experiential play and interdependence with the natural world among elementary school children.

  11. I agree with you 100% I never stay on the trails I see more that way, these kids only care about video games there phone, got no clue what nature is all about

  12. Matt, thanks for your thoughtful missive. Like you, I am a conservationist. I work with private landowners to inform and inspire them to do the next thing to conserve their land. I do not preach or judge their choices. I grew up on Aldo Leopold, Sigurd Olsen and George Vuckelich. Too many folks point to the essay “Heart like a Mountain” by Aldo Leopold but either forgot everything else he wrote or never bothered to read it in the first place.
    Humans are part of nature. Because we can reason and have the capability of abstract thought necessary to intuit the concept of a web of life, we are have a special burden to be responsible stewards.
    We alter the environment in more ways and to an extent unique in nature. We transported the invasive plants that now infest our prairies, woodlands and wetlands. Our wheat seeds included hitchhiking Russian thistle (tumbleweed) seed. We introduced Africanized bees, starlings and sparrows to the Western Hemisphere. Those invaders are not natural here. They did not evolve here and have no natural enemies. Their uncontrolled growth is as much a threat as any ATV trail or unauthorized firing range.
    John Muir and Gifford Pinchot battled with one another a century ago over preservation verses wise use. Fortunately, neither vanquished the other.
    So, we too have a responsibility to manage our natural resources. But moreover; we broke it, so it is up to us to clean up the messes we make. We need to learn to live along side the natural world as responsible members and wise stewards. We cannot wall off protected public lands and hire out that responsibility to natural resource professionals. Our public lands become then nothing more than a zoo and its inhabitants pets. Yes, we need to protect special places. But we must not teach our children that nature is “out there.” It is when we learn to live responsibly side-by-side with our neighbors that we will begin to realize the Land Ethic.

  13. This is a very inspirational
    Story!!
    I fully agree that I enjoyed nature as a young child growing up. my children did enjoy everything I did as a child, with frogs, garter snakes, fish aquarium , also enjoying walking in nature etc.
    As a result they are doing the same things I did, they did .
    I am an animal lover and love nature, love our Earth.
    My children are the same and now with their children!!
    Good topic.
    Thank you for bringing this very important part of nature!!!
    Marie Patsch

  14. Great article! Hopefully there is a middle ground between the “tower” & the trampeling hordes overrunning nature!! (a bit of sarcasm there). I so enjoy reading your articles – learning something new every time and I’ve been around almost 80 years.

  15. This is a great article. I shared it with my family members that have young kids. One will love the idea of a “nature box”.

  16. Recently, I was in a discussion about climate resiliency and adaptation. What to do with those natural area that won’t adapt well, where native species will be displaced and replaced with opportunistic plants and exotic species? Seems to me like they will be great places for kids, and adults, to explore and play. Appreciate too you bringing Emma Marris into this; she helps me think about new definitions of nature and conservation.

    1. Emma Marris is anti-conservation. I do not believe we should abandon conservation so kids can play wherever.

  17. I roamed freely in nature as a kid, an experience I hold dear. I also know there were many fewer humans then, and we still put much pressure on wild and natural places. I appreciate your thoughtful look at the issue of exposure to, and presence in, nature. I suspect that our population has grown to he point where any action is a conundrum.

  18. I agree. You have to let the kids roam and explore off the trails, but there are some do’s and don’t that should be instilled in them first. Don’t tramp down the wildflowers. Collect specimens with moderation. if they are the collecting type. Don’t harass the animals. Turn over the rocks in streams, but put them back in place – etc.

  19. I love your article. I totally agree with you. I have always let all 7 of my kids do exactly that and they all love nature, being outside and all of the critters. I grew up spending most of my time in the woods in Brooksville, Florida and still go hiking and exploring with my girlfriend and her kids now too.

  20. Playing in nature is an age appropriate way to learn to love the outdoors! As you grow and learn more about the places that provided such rich experiences, you will strive to care for and protect it!

  21. I lived in and grew up in a National Oatk and a National Forest. Endless hires of unstructured okay in nature. I’m a better human because of it and a due heard advocate for public lands.

  22. Just reading this article made me feel good because I remember all the encounters with nature you experienced. And I see that twinkle in my grandkids’ eyes when they discover something in my woods they could never discover in a manicured hands off nature preserve. I’m in for wild safe woods for kids and this article inspires me to hunt around the neighborhood for just such a place to create. THX

  23. I wish there were more people who thought like you Matt. I grew up in Staten Island spending the warmer months exploring the woods and wetlands that once were fairly prominent. As Staten Island’s population grew these places I loved slowly disappeared along with all of the critters I used to find so often. Now only a few areas dot the landscape of the now overdeveloped Staten Island. Some of those areas are protected by city and state. Of course, if caught in these “restricted” areas you may face fines and/or jail time.

    So, in order to get my exploring obsession satiated, a group of my friends started heading out to the Pine Barrens of southern New Jersey, to find, photograph and release whatever reptile or amphibian we found. One of these trips ended up with all of us being questioned and searched for forty five minutes by a state game warden who thought we were up to no good. While the game warden was not belligerent and found nothing in my truck or on any of us but photo equipment and food/beverages, the experience left me with a sour taste in my mouth. If I couldn’t explore, find and photograph native species than what could I do here in such a diverse ecological environment? I guess stay on the trail, hope to see something near the trail and hopefully take a less than stellar photo.

    What can I hope to show my children what I used to enjoy without being harassed by governmental officials? The current and unrealistic way of regulating our natural environment is detrimental to our yearning for learning. It needs to change and the only way is through education of the officials who right and enact these laws. I want to go back to these wonderful natural areas to explore without feeling like I am breaking the law because I wandered off of trail or handled and photographed a creature or plant/flower. Enough of my ramblings. Thanks for your insightful article!

    1. Fred, the reason the game warden questioned you is certainly because of poaching. It is a terrible problem……people steal reptiles and amphibians from public lands and sell them on the open market. So now you don’t see very many of these creatures on public lands anymore. Glades near me should be crawling with lizards and snakes, you never see them anymore. What you do see is flipped rocks, evidence of poaching. Rather than blaming the game warden, consider they are trying to preserve biodiversity for you, your kids and all of us to enjoy. And btw……because poachers aren’t the nicest people in the world, being a game warden can be a dangerous job.

  24. While some of us with a science background have no problem making the distinction between a safe area to leave the trail and an area that could harm protected species, many do not have that background and confidence to say, “go ahead and explore” in places other than their own backyard. So what can conservationists offer to that part of the public who may be lacking that knowledge and confidence? Leave the trail and explore, just not in state or federal parks. I think that could be a confusing message for many people. I do appreciate this idea though and it makes me have to check myself with my own kids; I know I remind them to stay on the trail often because it’s what I’ve always been taught and understand the importance of protecting wild spaces. Also, I am a rule follower all the way, but I recognize how this can dampen the experience.

  25. “Why Staying on the Trail Is Bad for Nature”

    Staying on the trail is good for nature when habitat is very sensitive and you don’t want to spread invasive plant species or crush the eggs of ground nesting grassland birds. There has to be some places that are off limits to trampling feet. Where I live in southern Wisconsin, “Please stay on the trail” signs are appropriately placed in order to protect prairies and wildlife, especially where threatened and endangered species exist. And yet many people disregard such signs. I would only go along with the author’s sentiment in the context of wild playgrounds (as mentioned) where habitat quality isn’t a primary concern.

  26. Ticks. If you are bushwacking in the woods don’t forget the tick repellent.

  27. I love the idea of wild playgrounds. In the Northeast ticks have taken a lot of the joy out of the outdoors. I grew up in the country and we climbed trees and roamed wherever we wanted but now when I see children rolling in the grass my first thought is “do a tick check”.

    I will be doing a program about soil with 6th graders this week and as we will be in the woods we will be talking about compaction of the soil from people walking off the paths. This is a very complicated subject with advocates on both sides of the issue. Thank you for posting this.

  28. Absolutely! Leave the path. That’s where the connections happen. Thank you.

  29. As an LNT Trainer and outdoor educator I understand the sentiment behind this article. We strongly need the principles of Leave No Trace for areas that are high use such as State and Federal Parks. Some of these areas are very hardy and some are quite sensitive. But the average person is not necessarily able to know the difference. So we need the simple blanket rules of LNT to reduce the impact of masses of people that visit high use areas each year. These rules were not meant to apply to the back yard or the vacant lot across the street where a lot of you kids have their first experiences in nature. Sustainably is a dynamic issue that needs dynamic solutions.